The Ancient Greeks – Party Lovers?

Article by Zara Barua. Edited by Liam Geoghegan. Additional Research by Ellie Veryard.

British youth is not afraid to admit that its socialising is far less than organised, controlled and subdued. In fact most 18 to 25 year olds would agree that their parties are nothing but a gathering of binge drinkers downing an array of alcoholic concoctions with an end result of stupidity, mayhem and most likely…well…illness. If we delve into history we encounter much different ways of socialising and partying, some more similar to our modern day culture than others! In a bid to assess British society, let us delve into the history of party goers from around the world.

First on the hit list is the ever interesting Ancient Greeks, largely renowned for their famous intellectuals. How did they cool off after a hard day’s philosophizing? Christopher Xenopoulos Janus has researched Greek symposiums (drinking parties) and found that Greeks were quite the party animals and ‘in most cases…no purpose was required’ for a party. However, he appreciates that although they were party lovers, symposiums were ‘highly ritualised’ with rules to control drinking. Greek parties would have a ‘symposiarch’ (a drinking master), who had the authority to punish symposiasts (the participants) who infringed rules. Rules would include how many cups of wine each person was allowed, to ensure everyone was as inebriated as each other; therefore, it was essential for the symposiarch to know how easily each guest was affected by alcohol. According to Janus, the phrase, ‘I hate a drinker with a good memory’, was very popular with Greeks, definitely suggesting symposiums were a bit wild.

Image of Symposium

David Sansone believes that symposiums’ main purpose was to be a competition between symposiasts to display the most ‘restraint’ and ‘mental acuity’ with regard to the ‘consumption of large amounts of wine and the availability of sexual partners of both genders’ (the latter implies that there was little stigma attached to bisexualism at these drinking parties). Sansone controlled events with rules and regulations, there are signs of a highly sexualised aspect, with women excluded from being involved apart from as female slaves used for entertainment and to fulfil the sexual needs of symposiasts. This is indicated by vases and cups found dating from 400BC, illustrating ‘immoderate, and sometimes violent, group sex’. Sansone comments that older men would put young symposiasts to the test by attempting to seduce them, however, Sansone deliberates as to whether these sexual acts actually took place, or if they were merely a test of restraint. As he says, the illustrations on the vases ‘may have been part of the test as well, like the wine that they contained’.

In relation to our present day behaviour, maybe the ancient Greeks are not to be learned from, based on what we have looked at so far, but Janus finishes his article by implying that there was something more to symposiums than just drinking and sex. Janus comments, having studied the writings of Plato, that ‘serious conversation’ was of utmost importance and symposiasts were encouraged to discuss questions of life and death, with their tongues loosened by alcohol. Sansone touches on this as he draws on the proverbial expression, ‘wine and truth’, hinting that the Greeks would come out with their best ideas whilst under the influence. Perhaps the success of those intellectuals such as Plato, Aristotle and Hippocrates was actually due to the number of symposiums they attended!

So, the ancient Greeks can indeed be summed up as party lovers, but not the senseless party lovers that they may seem at first glance. Symposiums were a congregation of intellectual, high-status men enjoying wine and women, sometimes a little more than they were meant to. The common idea of the Greeks as living intellectual and sophisticated lifestyles is still a fair assessment, since drinking was a part of this. Maybe we should try to make our drinking games more philosophical like the Greeks? If you have ever played “I have Never” at a house party, you can only imagine how surreal that could end up being!

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